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Tuesday 15 August 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 29. passionately weave in the familiar and traditional

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'In the middle of the orchestral programme, the two lovely sisters on violin and cello, Sabat and Sawen from Erbil, sang a Kurdish song, Waku Nay Kunkuna Jargm by Adnan Karim, accompanied by one of our pianists, Zardasht. As few in Iraq had experience of an orchestral programme, I reckoned a sung duo in the middle of the first half proved just as valid a musical experience as anything else we offered.'

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

The NYOI's Iraqi audience had little or no experience of listening to western classical music or attending concerts where such music was performed. It was important, therefore, for Paul to create a familiar cultural touchstone for his listeners within the orchestra's programme of otherwise western classical music. 

By giving his audience this oasis of familiar sounds sung by familiar people, Paul achieved at least two important things:
  1. The song provided the reassurance and familiarity that encouraged his audience to feel at home within the context of a western classical music concert (a context that to those not familiar with it can easily feel somewhat formal and at times intimidating).
  2. By placing traditional Iraqi music side-by-side with western classical music the point was clearly made that both traditions were equally valid and valuable and that they had the potential to complement rather than conflict with each other (a powerful message possessing wide social and cultural significance).
As well as creating this familiar point of contact for his audience and emphasising the worth of both types of music, Paul also used the traditional song to create an emotional bridge between the NYOI musicians and their audience: a bridge that enabled both groups to move towards each other and begin sharing their feelings and appreciating each other's perspectives. 

But to build this bridge effectively, it needed to be done with heart and a passionate willingness to reach out and share (and a welcoming openness to what was received in return):
'Both had wonderful voices but, like many, were too closed in their own worlds. In rehearsal, I'd encouraged both to sing through their eyes, and reach out to the public, so they could in turn reach back. As they poured their souls into the auditorium, the fundamental tones of sadness and loss darkened the hall. Listeners recognised their yearning and we, sitting in the orchestra, felt their epiphany.'

This passionate willingness to share and be open to what people give in return is how Paul and the NYOI avoided offensive tokenism that would have worked counter to the orchestra's aims and intentions by alienating rather than including the audience.

Sneaking in the authentic can be another credibility enhancing and support inducing way to weave in the familiar and traditional:

'We rounded off with Saween resplendent in Kurdish dress, singing a traditional song in her pure, non-vibrato voice, ornamenting with mesmerising glottal inflections, while Tuqa and Zana accompanied on cello and violin. This was the last thing the producers wanted for a morning magazine, but we were very chuffed to have sneaked in something authentic.' 

Publicly 'sneaking something authentic' into a situation where it is not especially welcome or expected can send a strong and positive message to existing supporters within specific populations and potential supporters within wider populations. It broadcasts your commitment to the needs and interests of those you are seeking to engage and work with and shows a determination to further the goals of your collaborative project (rather than chase the often spurious advantages gained by habitually putting others' goals first).

Lastly, do not allow your focus on the familiar and traditional to blind you to what is current and new within the societies and cultures with which you are working. (As well as including traditional Iraqi music in the NYOI's concert programmes, Paul made a point of including new works by Iraqi Arab and Kurd composers.) 

Sometimes, introducing new developments from within a society and culture can be surprising and educational for the people living in that society and culture. This aspect is dealt with here

So, do the following when seeking to collaborate with partners from different societies and cultures:
  • Create oases of reassuring familiarity for your partners within otherwise unfamiliar and perhaps intimidating contexts.
  • Where possible and appropriate, which will be in most cases, demonstrate that partners' traditions are as valid and valuable as your own and that each can complement the other.
  • Use what is familiar and traditional to build a bridge upon which partners can move towards each other and begin sharing feelings and perspectives.
  • Avoid tokenism when weaving in the familiar and traditional. Do this by demonstrating a heartfelt and passionate willingness to reach out and share (and do not forget to welcome what is received in return).
  • Do not allow your focus on the familiar and traditional to blind you to new developments within a society and culture. 
  • Remember that new developments within a society and culture are often surprising and educational to those living in that society and culture.      

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